Learning how to Learn Pt 1

Who else was a teacher’s pet as a kid? I’ve always had a pretty strong respect for authority, probably because my parents made for really excellent role models. (And I’ve got a stellium in Capricorn.) Even if I didn’t like a teacher or think they were particularly good at their job, I’d behave myself in their class, and my fave feeling as a child was positive feedback from an authority figure. The worst feeling was condemnation, knowing I’d disappointed someone in charge. That’s how I figured out what to do. The question was less “do I actually want to do this, care about this, or think I did a good job?” and more “does someone else approve?” The vibe was fear-based.

I’ve recently lost my primary spiritual teacher. Not to any physical death or harm, thank God, but I can’t go to him for wisdom or guidance. So the first thing I did was to sign up for a bunch of classes (spiritual, artistic, whatever), recommit to my Bible study, and start like 5 new projects. When scattering my mind to the fucking wind failed to center me and provide a clear path forward, I desperately emailed a really skillful reiki practitioner I’d worked with previously. She graciously spoke and channeled with me for 2 hours, and I’ll probably be writing a separate blog about that. The main take-away from the session was this: I need to sit down, go within, and go quiet. This isn’t actually a time for exploration, and I won’t be able to find what I need on any bookshelf, in any class.

As I write this, I’m more deeply realizing that that’s what my spiritual teacher had been telling me repeatedly and in varied ways for the 3 years we knew each other. Even before I asked him to teach me, our interactions specifically brought up my inner voice in a way that no other person had. Even then, he was teaching me about the value of silence and truth, of affirming yourself, uncovering your honest emotions, and remaining in your integrity under pressure. These were not easy lessons. Gnawing through your calf to free yourself from the bear trap of societal expectations isn’t supposed to be easy, I guess.

A True Student

I always thought of myself as a good student because I got good grades and was pretty immediately able to discern what people wanted. It’s easy to get A’s when you’re a know-it-all who’s prioritized approval over authenticity because modern education values conformity over expression and understanding. And that became my identity; being good at giving people what they want. When I couldn’t really give them that, I’d lie and say I would. I’d overpromise for the immediate hit of approval, then shirk responsibility later, afraid to ask for help because it would fuck with the image of myself as a “good ___(student, intern, worker, friend).” By the time I was 20, very depressed, overcommitted, with unspecified attention issues, the only way I knew how to deal with my failures was to lie and shunt blame in order to cover them up. This was how I handled not getting a job or internship, not completing assignments, and failing my friends and romantic partners. If you’d asked me at the time, I would’ve said that the problem was my boyfriend’s behavior, the harshness of the industry, the ridiculous pressure of college. These things were obstacles, but I was doing basically nothing to overcome them, preferring to languish in self-pity while exacerbating all tensions, refusing all help and kindness.

Me in my self-pity spiral, but whacking other people as I flailed

The real problem was that *I* wasn’t making any of these commitments in the first place. The projected image of me was. I didn’t know how to be myself, I just knew how to try to be what I thought other people wanted me to be. That facade was cracking under a decade of pressure. Again, the vibe was fear-based.

The past 3 years have shaken up my understanding of what it means to be a good student, which has led me to the following, inconclusive list.

Traits of a true student:

  • Makes mistakes and learns from them
  • Does something with the aim of understanding, not receiving approval
  • Has a fairly accurate read on what their abilities are
  • Doesn’t judge themself for where they are, and is honest about it
  • Is inspired by others’ success, not envious
  • Doesn’t diminish or overstate theirs/others’ accomplishments
  • Doesn’t try to skip steps or cut corners
  • Tries to innovate on existing techniques/info
  • Contributes to the discussion without dominating it/making it about their intelligence
  • Is open to praise and critique, but doesn’t internalize it as *who* they are
  • Asks questions, asks for help (Doesn’t pretend to know more than they do)
  • Doesn’t lie about not doing the fucking homework
  • Doesn’t pass blame onto others (doesn’t need blame at all, actually)
  • Checks what they’re hearing against other sources, including their own gut/intuition
  • Has genuine respect for their teachers, their peers, and themself
  • Disagrees with their teachers, and is honest about that disagreement
  • Listens without planning a response (pays attention, takes notes)
  • Doesn’t fucking care about A’s holy shit oh my GOD I wasted so much energy thinking my GPA mattered and meant something about me as a person ugh.

The Inner Teacher

In losing the teacher I spoke about, I also lost a best friend. A true friend. He was the one to reintroduce me to Christ and challenge me to read the Bible. I’ve had constant conversations with him about faith, philosophy, and… everything. (We’d also have conversations about completely inane nonsense, so you know it was a good time.) Losing this person feels like losing a chunk of my heart, a mirror, a light. I lost him because I lied to him, maligned him, and manipulated him–I was not being a True Student™ (or a true friend, for that matter). The old bullshit I pulled with my previous teachers didn’t go over well with him, and that’s how ya know he was a True Teacher™. But I also think I lost him because I was using him as a way to ignore listening to my own self. I didn’t (and don’t) fully trust myself yet, and so I’d misrepresent myself time and time again to him, trying to front as somewhere different than I was. I was trying to impress Teacher because again, the vibe was fear-based.

In this still darkness of his absence, I’m beginning to see my own little light. Both my teacher and reiki practitioner spoke to me using imagery of still waters. Both admonished me to stop splashing around, and allow myself to float, sink, see, rest.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus with Plumeria (1939)

In silence with myself, this quote from Georgia O’Keefe that’s been ringing in my head for the past 2.5 years takes deeper meaning: “To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” True understanding–necessary for painting flowers, creating trusting relationships, and achieving any real spiritual insight–takes as long as it takes. You cannot rush the process. You can’t lie to someone in order to give them what you think they want ASAP and then consider that to be building true connection. You can’t blame the things that distract you from seeing, prevent you from being a friend, because blame itself is a distraction. You have to focus on being yourself without judgement in tiny, at times horribly uncomfortable, entirely necessary ways, and in that you will also bring into focus the truth of others. You cannot frantically jet ski across the ocean of understanding. It is endless, and its treasures are held in its depths. You must be still, and sink. In patiently, slowly seeing myself, I am patiently, slowly befriending myself. I do not trust myself fully yet, but I don’t feel pressure to, knowing that in time, as I get better at representing myself honestly and lovingly, I will grow into that trust. In that, I feel peace I didn’t know was possible.

There will be a second part to this going over this from a more theological perspective, but in the interest of #AuthenticExpression and not focusing on getting A’s, I wanted to release this part on its own without over-editing.

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